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Neoconservative Nathaniel: Bioethics and "The Birth-Mark"

by Albert Keith Whitaker
Boston College

American politics rarely mixes itself up with literature. Local politicians sometimes complain about or even condemn a particular book. But on how many occasions, at the national level, has a governmental body taken a literary classic as its guide—indeed, not just any guide, but as the lodestone to which it oriented its subsequent deliberations? On January 20, 2002, the President’s newly-appointed Council on Bioethics did exactly that, beginning its work with a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nearly eight-score year old story, “The Birth-Mark.”

Some journalists at the time warily called the decision to begin with this story—in which a scientist (Aylmer) feverishly tries to remove a small birthmark from the cheek of his otherwise perfect wife (Georgiana) and ends up killing her—“odd” or “creative.” William Safire “gushed” that the Council’s choice showed its capability of “profound debate about what matters most.” Ellen Goodman, on the other hand, charged that using the story equated curing terrible diseases (such as Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, or Alzheimer’s) with “the quest for perfection,” and that the Bush administration only planned to advance—under a “perfectionism” scare—its fundamentalist religious views. The New Yorker likewise complained that the Council was trying to achieve by fear of the future what it couldn’t with theological arguments about embryos, and that it inadvertantly showed its hand when it began “not with facts but with fiction.” But the Washington Post trumped all other critics, when, the morning the Council convened its first meeting (“The Birth-Mark” discussion), it likened the group to the Taliban, whom American forces were fighting at that very moment in Afghanistan.

Anyone interested in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s place in the 21st century must find these journalistic responses provocative. Hawthorne did not avoid politics in his own day, writing adulatory pieces about Democrats including a campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce, and currying favor (at times) with partisans in order to win patronage jobs in Boston, Salem, and England. But does his fiction have a place in present-day political debate? And what about the charges that this story masks a “fundamentalist” religious attitude—whether of a Christian or Islamic variety? Do these responses reveal that, like a delicate flower, a literary work as refined as Hawthorne’s cannot survive the storm of partisan politics?

Perhaps opening legislative sessions, Presidential press-conferences, or judicial hearings with readings from Hawthorne, Melville, James and the like would push the merits of literature (and the patience of the public) too far. But even in the face of these journalistic jabs, the Bioethics Council’s exercise reveals the real value of uniting an expressely deliberative body with a rich—and short—literary text. The Council’s conversation that day voiced a variety of interpretations, many of which mirror interpretations offered by more scholarly readers of “The Birth-Mark.” This conversation also had far-reaching effects on the Council’s subsequent work. And, most interestingly, the inspired choice of a text by this decidedly American author reveals the limits of American political debate, in—of all things—the very limitations Hawthorne imposed upon himself as a storyteller.

So what did the Bioethics Council have to say about “The Birth-Mark”? To anyone who knows college seminars—especially in vogue at the University of Chicago, where Council Chairman Leon Kass taught for over 20 years—the discussion transcript evokes a familiar scene. Some members jump right out and voice their opinions. Others, mainly the natural scientists, hang back and only hesitatingly add their thoughts. The conversation meanders down several dead ends. People ask questions that hang in the air. Some make provocative statements that fall flat. They circle the story a couple of times, with Kass drawing them, here and there, back to what he sees as the central questions. Finally the conversation comes to a provisional conclusion in a couple of brief closing statements. Again, if one didn’t know that these were presidentially appointed experts, one might think it the first, tentative discussion of a graduate seminar in American lit.

Kass began the conversation by defending the choice of the reading this way:

First it deals with certain important driving forces behind the growth and appreciation of modern biology and medicine, our human aspiration to eliminate defects and to pursue some kind of perfection. … But it also invites us to think about the human meaning of a birth-mark, being marked at birth. Therefore, it enables us to start talking about bioethics by locating our current concerns in relation to certain enduring matters and questions.

Though he did not quote Hawthorne at this point, Kass could have rested his view of the story’s point on the first part of Hawthorne’s own notebook sketch of the story’s idea, “A person to be the death of his beloved in trying to raise her to more than mortal perfection…” Or he might have quoted Aylmer’s own shout near the story’s end, “My peerless bride, it is successful! You are perfect!”

After Kass’ brief introduction, William May (a professor of moral theology) expanded on Kass’ comments, using citations from the story. He explained, “‘The Birth-Mark’ exposes as I see it and throws light on two powerful human experiences: the desire for perfection and the struggle with the un-elected marks that go with our birth.” He sketched this desire and struggle in familial relations—parental love and the marital love Aylmer and Georgiana share—and then added,

It may not be too much of a reach to say that modern science exhibits the two sides of love suggested here. On the one hand science engages us in beholding. It lets us study and savor the world as it is. On the other hand science and the technologies it generates engage us in molding, in the perfecting, in the project of transforming, amending, and perfecting the given world.
May then applies this understanding back to the story:
Twice Hawthorne tells us that the birth-mark is imprinted on her left cheek, a sinister mark as it were on the left, the mortal side of every living thing, his Georgiana included. The side on which the heart itself resides, the very fount and core of life. Life and mortality are sided there together. To remove the mark of mortality will remove her from life.
And May quoted from the story to support his claims: “It was the fatal flaw of humanity which nature in one shape or another stamps ineffaceably on all her productions.” (766)

Kass returned to this same thought at the end of the day’s discussion: “…the birth-mark is something which arrives with the fact of being born in the world, a contingent event, and it is, therefore, a sign of our finitude and limitation.” According to him, the scientific project—as revealed in the story and in the history of modern science—aims to remove the birth-mark, to remove mortality itself. In conclusion he asked these questions, “Is that a worthy aspiration? … What are the limits and to what extent do we have to accept the given both as given and as perhaps perfectible?”

The other council members did not jump to address these questions. Instead, after May’s opening comments, and after a momentary stab at the question of Aminadab’s identity, they turned to debate whether or not Aylmer is a scientist. As Mary Ann Glendon (Professor of Law at Harvard) explained, “By the end of the story he has the reader questioning about how much of a man [Aylmer] is and also how much of a scientist he is.” As Taylor Stoehr put the same dilemma, in discussing “The Birth-Mark” in Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists, “…the solitary researches of genius unfit the scientist for human companionship, so that he is doomed to destroy the very persons whom he intends his work to benefit.”

Stoehr’s judgment of Aylmer remained complicated, however: “His whole life has been devoted to lofty scientific ideals, and even his frantic desire to rid Georgiana of her birthmark may be supposed admirable on the face of it, an obsession with perfection.” (118) And the council members reflected on this complication too. Thus Gilbert Meilander (Professor of Christian Ethics) replied to Glendon, “How do we account for Georgiana’s high estimate of him? Is she just mistaken?” Likewise, a few moments later, Kass quoted Georgiana’s own praise of Aylmer: “You have aimed loftily—you have done nobly!” (780)

Thus in this conversation two lines of inquiry developed simultaneously: Is Aylmer a good scientist? And is he a good husband and lover? For example, James Q. Wilson (Professor Emeritus of Public Policy) interjected, after explaining that his daughter has a birthmark and it hasn’t affected his love for her in the slightest, “I regard Aylmer’s behavior as absolutely outrageous.” This response led Michael Sandel (Government Professor at Harvard) to suggest that Aylmer mistakes something trivial (along the lines of crooked teeth or a slighter shorter leg) as impeding “the highest human possibilities” of this woman. And Charles Krauthammer (columnist at The Washington Post) concluded, “[What Aylmer does] is appalling because he is not a scientist, he is a narcissist and he kills her for the most superficial of reasons. … This is not science, this is magic.”

Krauthammer could almost have been quoting from Nancy Bunge’s recent summary of Aylmer’s character: “His benighted perspective makes him a failure both as a scientist and as a human being…” (30) And perhaps it’s useful to take a moment to notice how the Council’s discussion along these lines reproduced significant critical and scholarly evaluations of the story. Upon the story’s publication in Mosses (1846), the reviewer from Blackwood’s—unlike several members of the Council—did not object to Hawthorne’s gothic picture of natural science:

In the first story, “The Birth Mark,” we raise no objection to the author, because he invents a chemistry of his own, and supposes his hero in possession of marvelous secrets which enable him to diffuse into the air an ether or perfume, the inhaling of which shall displace a red mark from the cheek which a beautiful lady was born with…
But the critic did object to this odd scientist’s “preposterous” motivation, “which prompts the amateur of science to an operation of the most hazardous kind, on a being he is represented as dearly loving.” This critic, like several members of the Council, focused his objections on Aylmer as a lover—while at the same time doubting the seriousness of the affliction he meant to cure:
We are to believe that a good husband is afflicted, and grievously and incessantly tormented by a slight red mark on the cheek of a beautiful woman, which as a lover, never gave him a moment’s uneasiness, and which neither to him nor to any one else abated one iota from her attractions. We are to suppose that he braves the risk of the experiment—it succeeds for a moment, then proves fatal, and destroys her—for what? Merely that she who was so very beautiful should attain to an ideal perfection. …
And so he concluded,
Call you this “pure and lofty love,” when a woman is admired much as a connoisseur admires a picture, who might indeed be supposed to fume and fret if there was one little blot or blemish in it? … Can any one recognise in this elaborate nonsense about ideal perfection, any approximation to the feeling which a man has for the wife he loves?
Of course, other critics recognized exactly such love in the story. According to Hawthorne’s close acquiantance and Transcendentalist muse, Margaret Fuller,
‘The Birth-Mark’ and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ embody truths of profound importance in shapes of aerial elegance. In these, as here and there in all these pieces, shines the loveliest ideal of love and the beauty of feminine purity, (by which we mean no mere acts or abstinences, but perfect single truth felt and done in gentleness) which is its root.
While later scholars, particularly feminist thinkers, take an opposite tack, and condemn Aylmer not as unbelievable but criminally culpable. For example, Nina Baym has argued,
In general terms…these stories narrate the rejection, by a man, of a sexual union with a woman who is either his fiancee or his wife. This rejection affects both man and woman adversely and, in the woman’s case, often fatally.
In particular, in the case of “The Birth-Mark,” she pronounces this judgment: “The hero attempts to purify the woman be separating her in some way from her body. This, as Hawthorne recognizes, is murder: sex-murder.” Poor Georgiana! How mistaken she was, it seems, to have conciliated Aylmer with that final, “You have done nobly…” (780)

To return to the Council, in the middle of these charges about Aylmer’s science or his love for his wife, Kass tried to move the discussion back to this basic question, “What is a birth-mark?” But the allures of debating science and love prove too great. Some of the scientists (Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago, Daniel Foster of the University of Texas) hurried to support Krauthammer’s charge that Aylmer cannot represent science as we know it. Foster also led the group into something of a digression on the role of money in scientific research. Robert George (Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton) also dismissed Aylmer as a lover, concluding, “I think that Aylmer has simply lost sight of, if he ever had in grip, an understanding of Georgiana, perhaps people in general, as worthy intrinsically—as having an intrinsic dignity…” Only briefly before Kass’ recapitulation at the end did another member (William Hurlbut, of Stanford) attempt to make the story complicate their shared subject of inquiry: “I think at the heart of this story at least from my reading of it is the question of the meaning of suffering and imperfection in life and the role of science in relationship to that.”

By the end of its short conversation, the Council did not arrive at agreement about “The Birth-Mark.” Like the scholars and critics before them, these readers disagreed in their most fundamental judgments of the story, though at least they all disagreed about the same things: Is Aylmer a scientist? Is he a lover? Is he a good or wicked human being? The closest one finds to a dominant view in this discussion belongs to Kass and a few other members, focused as they are on the birthmark as a sign of human imperfection, specifically mortality, the removal of which removes the imperfect human being from life. As Nancy Bunge similarly has argued, with reference to Georgiana’s willingness to serve as the object of her husband’s experiments, “Georgiana’s absorption of Aylmer’s point of view shows the power of both science and arrogance; people so yearn to transcend human limits, they will destroy themselves rather than reconcile themselves to imperfection.” (30) But perhaps this quotation, unlike Kass, puts too little weight on the nobility of Aylmer’s pursuit, as Hawthorne describes it. This passage from Robert Fogle might echo Kass’ interpretation better:

Man’s chief temptation is to forget his limits and complexities, to think himself all good, or to think himself all bad. Either way he falls into spiritual isolation and pride. He needs a proper mixture of the earthly and the ideal—with a touch of flame to temper it. Thus Aylmer, the scientist-hero of “The Birthmark,” violates the covenant of humankind when he tries to eradicate the only blemish of his beautiful wife, a tiny mark on her cheek. He succeeds, but kills her in the process. The birthmark, which is shaped like a hand, is her grip upon earthly existence. She dies to the sound of the laughter of Aminadab, Aylmer’s assistant, a kind of earthfiend. Even the pit has its claims, which must not be slighted. … So Hawthorne condemns his strange seekers, his Aylmers, his Ethan Brands, but he makes them noble.
To any admirer of democracy and of Hawthorne, it is pleasant to see a one hour public conversation among thoughtful interlocutors recapitulate, albeit in a highly condensed form, the high points from a century and a half of literary criticism and scholarship. But beyond this conversation itself, what effects has Hawthorne’s story had on the Council?

Most of the Council’s discussions for the last two years have sprung from technical material—staff papers, invited presentations—about a host of medical practices and concerns: cloning, stem-cell research, aging, memory loss. But their humanistic beginning has served as an example for some of these later conversations. Thus on July 12, 2002, Kass led a discussion of another literary text, Richard Selzer’s “Whither Thou Goest,” a contemporary short story also about marital love, but in the context of conundrums over selfhood, privacy, and organ transplantation. And on September 12 of that year the Council analyzed philosopher Hans Jonas’ paper, “Philosophical Reflections on Experimenting with Human Subjects,” returning to Aylmer’s misdeeds with an author whose work has shaped Kass’ own thought, including his reading of Hawthorne.

Even more noticeably, the Council has afforded “The Birth-Mark” a prominent place in several of its publications. Near the beginning of its recent report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (2003), the Council epitomized its dominant interpretation of the story, in a section entitled, “Beyond Natural Limits”:

Dreams of human perfection—and the terrible consequences of pursuing it at all costs—are the themes of Greek tragedy, as well as of “The Birth-Mark,” the Hawthorne short story with which the President’s Council on Bioethics began its work.
At the same time, the Council published a collection of readings, entitled Being Human, meant to accompany Beyond Therapy and to provoke thoughtful answers to some of the ethical questions that report debates. These readings—numbering close to 100—from philosophic, religious, scientific, and primarily literary and poetic texts—include selections from such authors as Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Longfellow, Whitman, George Eliot, O. Henry, and Auden. But the first reading—in the first section, “Natural Imperfection and Human Longing”—is “The Birth-Mark.” From its inception to the present, the imperfection that haunts Aylmer has haunted this Council’s work.

But perhaps haunting is too dark a word to use here, for in the view of Council Chairman Leon Kass, reading the story has had other positive effects on the group’s work together. According to Kass, beginning with this literary work forced council members to step outside their professional personae and confront each other in a serious way. Sharing this reading and its discussion has helped them get to know each other not only as concerned scientists or scholars, but as human beings who care about human things. As the selections from Being Human indicate, beginning with “The Birth-Mark” also signalled the Council’s desire to go beyond the usual bioethics corpus of technical material to find wisdom in a much wider field of human expression. Finally, their attention to Aylmer’s desires, scientific and marital, marked the Council’s conversations from the beginning as focused on “human desires and human goods” rather than technology.

But starting with “The Birth-Mark” revealed one other aspect of—or limitation upon—the Council’s public deliberation, an aspect worth more than passing notice. Return for a moment to the question Kass kept pushing in their discussion, and the other members largely avoided: What is the birthmark? The narrator describes it first as a “crimson stain,” one that disappears when Georgiana blushes (e.g., feels shame) and appears distinctly when she pales or feels fear. In the same passage he likens it to one of those “small blue stains” that run through pure statuary, such as the “Eve of Powers.” Finally, the narrator explains—after claiming that the hand “expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould” (766)—that “Aylmer’s sombre imagination” has selected “it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.”

Aylmer certainly has an answer to the question, “What is the birth-mark?” But it is an answer that transcends the “natural imperfection” that the Bioethics Council so emphasizes. It does indicate natural imperfection: a propensity to suffer, age, and die that marks Georgiana, at birth, by birth. But it also affirms her fallen nature, her sinfulness: a grip also laid upon “before [she] came into the world.” The storyteller even seems to vouchsafe Aylmer’s identification of the hand with this moral or theological fault, by likening Georgiana to Eve, by calling the mark a “stain,” and by coloring it crimson, the color of her shame. Even Georgiana’s name possibly points in this direction. It finds its roots in Greek word for “earth,” symbolizing the young wife’s potential, her fecundity. Likewise “Eve” comes from the Hebrew word for life, something Adam recognizes when he names her, “The mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20)

But unlike Adam, Aylmer does not respond to sin and death by turning to the marriage bed and reproduction. Instead he constructs for his wife an artificial bed-chamber in the midst of his laboratory, which turns out to be not her marriage but her death bed. In this interpretation, his dependence on science and his repudiation of his role as husband go hand in hand with a desire to overturn the divine dictate of death as a punishment for sin. Scientific ambition and curiously infertile love unite to destroy his wife, even as he meant to “worship” her (see 766 and 768).

As an interpretation, this view of the story finds suggestive support in the work of James, Stoehr, and others, not to mention Hawthorne’s notebooks and these passages of the story. It does not find much resonance in the Council’s deliberations. The most avid discussants of the story (Kass and May) here tend to look to the Greeks (tragedy and philosophy), rather than the Bible, for a cosmic standard by which to understand natural flourishing and natural imperfection. Hurlbut at one point frames the problem of their discussion as “How do we respond to a world where you cannot…un-bite the apple”—but he adds in that ellipsis, “metaphorically speaking.” Sandel speaks of “The Birth-Mark” as “a parable of the folly of despising the given,” but in line with contemporary existential thought, he assiduously avoids specifying any possible “giver.” Hurlbut, again, comes closest to a broader cosmic perspective when he discusses the “heart” of the story as “the question of the meaning of suffering and imperfection in life and the role of science in relationship to that”:

If you look at life from different perspectives you see if very differently. If you look at it from a particularly evolutionary perspective as though generated by certain types of forces you see it one way. If you see it as initiated and produced by a benevolent force you see it differently.
But he does not attempt to advance the discussion beyond observing these possible differences, nor does he suggest that the story takes one or the other perspective, or helps mediate between them.

And perhaps, in the end, his reserve has its merits. For Hawthorne’s story—even with its hints about Eve and the Fall—does not advance a dogmatic position. It does not disguise theology with mere trappings of invention. As observed, it is the “sombre imagination” of Aylmer the scientist, not the narrator, who identifies the crimson hand with sin, among other defects. As for the narrator—though in those early passages he vouchsafes Aylmer’s beliefs—in his final paragraph he transcends orthodox theology. The “fatal hand,” he explains, “was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame”—not the typical understanding of sin in the Calvinist or more broadly Christian tradition. Even more unorthodox are his final lines:

…had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.
To find the perfect future in the present sounds quite unlike the mixed blessings and curses that God bestows upon the marriage of Adam and Eve. The crimson hand may represent original sin. But it also makes possible the love and joy of mortal life, which Aylmer, according to this narrator, casts away by unloosing its grip.

By refusing to affirm a dogmatic moral in his story, Hawthorne takes “The Birth-Mark” out of the realm of mechical allegory and opens depths that speak to a wide variety of readers. The story speaks not just about science but also about love: both science and love have the power to lead to destruction, even impiety. But they also constitute our flourishing. As many others have observed, Hawthorne’s wonderful ability to do open such depths, so evident in many of his tales, suits him brilliantly to the American reader, one whose dark thoughts and bright hopes envision Hell and Heaven, but who often lives unsure of the foundations of his faith—or even its very existence. This same fruitful indeterminancy pervades the deliberations of the Bioethics Council. Some call it a frightening ruse, an apparent openness that hides a theological agenda. But closer attention to their initial reading, and to a deep sympathy between their deliberations and Hawthorne’s writing, should dispel that fear.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12183/

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